Glancing Back, and Remembering Phil Niekro
Hall of Famer Phil Niekro pitched for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves for 21 years, winning all but 50 of his 318 career victories in a Braves’ uniform. He is the winningest knuckleball pitcher in major league history, and amassed the third most wins of any Braves pitcher (after Warren Spahn and Kid Nichols).
Niekro was signed by the Braves in 1958. He made his major league debut in 1964, and he was 6-6 over the next two years as a member of the Braves’ bullpen. In 1967, Niekro went 11-9 with a league best ERA of 1.87. More importantly, he made the transition during the season from the Braves’ relief corps to the team’s starting rotation, pitching 10 complete games in 20 starts. He would be used as a starter almost exclusively for the rest of his career.
Niekro went 14-12 with a 2.59 ERA in 1968. In 1969, at the age of 30, he posted his first 20-victory season, going 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA.
Over the next 18 seasons, Niekro would win 264 games, 214 of those games with the Braves. He would win 10 or more games 17 times, and pitched more than 300 innings in a season four times. Between 1977 and 1979, Niekro led the National League each year in starts, complete games, innings pitched and losses. In fact, he lost an average of 19 games between 1977 and 1980, a testament to his durability and to the teams playing behind him as he averaged 18 wins per season and posted a combined 3.48 ERA for that period. He led the National League with an .810 winning percentage (17-4) in 1982.
Niekro was released by the Braves after the 1983 season and signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees. He won 16 games in each of his two seasons with the Yankees, including career victory number 300. He went 11-11 for the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and was 7-13 for the Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He pitched in one game for the Braves in 1987 before retiring.
Niekro’s 24 years in the major leagues produced a 318-274 record with a career earned run average of 3.35. In 716 career starts, he pitched 5,404 innings and 45 shutouts. He won five Gold Gloves and was a member of the National League All-Star team five times. He pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1973.
Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.